Yesterday I wrote about The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Dr. John Gottman uses this strong expression to describe certain negative communication styles that are lethal to a relationship. According to his research, the Four Horsemen predict relationship failure with over 90% accuracy if the behavior isn’t changed (Click here for a more detailed explanation of the Four Horsemen).

This blog post is about the antidote to Criticism, the first of the Four Horsemen: The Gentle Startup.

The first step in managing conflict successfully is to identify and counteract the Four Horsemen when they arrive in your conflict discussions. Fortunately, for every horseman there is an antidote that can be applied to the specific situation.

Gentle Start Up: Antidote to Criticism

A Gentle Startup is the antidote to the first Horseman, or Criticism.

The problem with criticism is that it attacks a person’s character. On the other hand, a complaint focuses on a specific behavior.

According to Dr. Gottman, the first three minutes of a conversation will determine how the conversation will go. When people don’t control their negative emotions and want to have a conversation about a problem, they usually start attacking their partner harshly.

However, the antidote for criticism is to complain without blaming our partner by using a soft or gentle startup.

To formulate your soft start-up consider asking yourself: What do I feel? What do I need?

Often a harsh startup is the result of trying to hide our vulnerable emotions: criticism then becomes a way to cover them up.

There are 5 elements to the Gentle Startup

1.Make statements that start with “I” instead of “You” to avoid blame. Rather than saying, “You’re so selfish…” explain how you feel, “I feel worried…”

2.Describe what is happening; don’t evaluate or judge. The focus should be on facts, not interpretation. Instead of saying, “You never help me with house chores,” you may say “The bathroom needs cleaning.”

3.Explain clearly what you need or want in positive terms. Don’t focus on what you don’t want, but on what you want. Something like, “I’d be so happy if we could have one night a week only for the two of us.”

4.Be polite. Try to use simple but effective words such as “please” and “thank you.”

5.Give appreciations. It’s important to acknowledge what your partner does right, even when you have a hard time to find anything positive.

Example of Soft Startup

(from the Book: The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work by John Gottman)

Justine: Okay (deep breath). Housework.

Michael: Yeah. Well, I mean I definitely clean off the counters in the kitchen and the table whenever we do stuff. (Defensive) this tine:Hm-hmm. You do. (Repair attempt)

Michael: Hm-hmm. (He’s relaxed; Justine’s repair attempt was successful.)

Justine: I think it’s just, like, sometimes when things are just kind of left, or the laundry just piles up … (Softened startup)

Michael: Yeah. I haven’t even been thinking about laundry (laughs). I mean, I just haven’t been thinking about it at all. (Not defensive)

Justine (laughs): That’s kind of cute. Who do you think’s doing it? You keep having clothes to wear.

Michael: Yeah, I guess.

Justine: And maybe that’s okay. But it just gets to me after a while.

Michael: Well, it hasn’t even crossed my mind that, like, we have to do the laundry. (Chuckles.)

Justine: Actually, Tim’s been folding them. (A neighbor in their apartment complex-the washer and dryer are in a communal laundry room.) I left a load in, and then when I passed by, the sheets were folded.

Michael: Maybe we should put our hamper in his room?

Justine (laughs): (Shared humor deescalates tension and lowers heart rates.)

Michael: So, okay, like maybe every other day or something when I first get back home from work…

Justine: Yeah, you could fold what makes sense, especially towels and underwear and the sheets…

Michael: Yeah, I’ll just look in the basket. (He is accepting her influence.)

Justine: Okay.

Perhaps the most important quality of this exchange is the virtual absence of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse–criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling- those hallmarks of marriage-harming conflict.

The reason for their absence is that Justine’s startup is soft. In contrast, a harsh startup usually begins the cycle of the four horsemen, which leads to flooding and, in turn, increased emotional distance and loneliness that lets the marriage wither. Only 40 percent of the time do couples divorce because they are having frequent, devastating fights. More often marriages end because, to avoid constant skirmishes, husband and wife distance themselves so much that their friendship and sense of connection are lost.


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